Back in 2005, George R.R. Martin released A Feast for Crows, the fourth book in his fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire (the basis for HBO's hit show Game of Thrones). Despite its almost-800-page length, Crows was only half a novel, really. The author admitted that the sheer size of his ambitious narrative had forced him to split one planned book in two. What's more, many of his most beloved characters were absent from Crows.
But now the second half of that tale has arrived. And if Crows was only half a novel, A Dance With Dragons is its opposite: By turns thrilling, funny, scary, emotionally devastating, oddly inspirational, and just plain grand, it feels like a compilation of several different great fantasy novels as it pulls together the disparate characters' story lines. The imp Tyrion Lannister finds himself on a genuine quest, traveling by land and sea. Jon Snow, hero of the icy north, is building an army to battle an ancient evil. Daenerys Targaryen, the Dragon Queen, must contend with far more human concerns, ruling a rowdy city-state whose government rivals The Wire's Baltimore in complexity. There's a pirate lord sailing through mystical waters, a warrior princess rebelling against kings, and an imprisoned traitor-prince brutalized by his captors. (And these last three are all members of the same family!) But Dragons is also a brilliantly unified work: Each character is struggling, in his or her own way, to create order out of chaos.
Halfway through, one character says, ''A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.'' In Dragons, ''a thousand lives'' is a low estimate. This is top-notch kitchen-sink storytelling part straightforward pulp, part high fantasy that will leave you thirsty for more. Luckily, Martin has two more books on the way. But let's not rush the man, people: When the writing is this good, it's worth the wait. A